Airway remodelling with subepithelial fibrosis, which abolishes the physiological functions of the bronchial wall, is a major issue in bronchial asthma. Human bronchial fibroblasts (HBFs) derived from patients diagnosed with asthma display in vitro predestination towards TGF-β-induced fibroblast-to-myofibroblast transition (FMT), a key event in subepithelial fibrosis. As commonly used anti-asthmatic drugs do not reverse the structural changes of the airways, and the molecular mechanism of enhanced asthma-related TGF-β-induced FMT is poorly understood, we investigated the balance between the profibrotic TGF-β/Smad2/3 and the antifibrotic TGF-β/Smad1/5/9 signalling pathways and its role in the myofibroblast formation of HBF populations derived from asthmatic and non-asthmatic donors. Our findings showed for the first time that TGF-β-induced activation of the profibrotic Smad2/3 signalling pathway was enhanced, but the activation of the antifibrotic Smad1/5/(8)9 pathway by TGF-β was significantly diminished in fibroblasts from asthmatic donors compared to those from their healthy counterparts. The impairment of the antifibrotic TGF-β/Smad1/5/(8)9 pathway in HBFs derived from asthmatic donors was correlated with enhanced FMT. Furthermore, we showed that Smad1 silencing in HBFs from non-asthmatic donors increased the FMT potential in these cells. Additionally, we demonstrated that activation of antifibrotic Smad signalling via BMP7 or isoliquiritigenin [a small-molecule activator of the TGF-β/Smad1/5/(8)9 pathway] administration prevents FMT in HBFs from asthmatic donors through downregulation of profibrotic genes, e.g., α-SMA and fibronectin. Our data suggest that influencing the balance between the antifibrotic and profibrotic TGF-β/Smad signalling pathways using BMP7-mimetic compounds presents an unprecedented opportunity to inhibit subepithelial fibrosis during airway remodelling in asthma.
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